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'Doctor Who' Daniel Mays interview: 'Night Terrors is very scary'

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Alex in Doctor Who S06E09 Night Terrors

© BBC

After last week's storming mid-series opener, Doctor Who continues this Saturday with Mark Gatiss's creepy 'Night Terrors'. Daniel Mays - who you may remember as the devilish Jim Keats in Ashes to Ashes - pops up in the episode as Alex, a concerned father unable to help his terrified son George (Jamie Oram). Be warned, there are minor spoilers ahead.

When the Doctor arrives on the scene, Alex learns a terrifying truth - monsters are real - and is soon sucked into a terrifying miniature world, where he and his new Time Lord chum are stalked by the terrifying Peg Dolls! Digital Spy and a few other journos caught up with Daniel recently to discuss his character, working with Matt Smith and things that go bump in the night...

How did it feel to be approached for a guest role on Doctor Who?
"It's a great feeling. I was out in South Africa doing Outcasts, coming to the end of that, and my agent phoned up and said, 'You've got an offer on the table for Doctor Who'. I thought, 'What time and place will it be set?' - and I was on a council estate in Bristol! I'm always on council estates!

"But the calibre of actors that they attract to come and do the guest leads on Doctor Who is fantastic. You weigh it up, and in this series alone, there's Hugh Bonneville, Frances Barber, David Walliams. Toby Jones has done it. It's one of those things where you can tick the box. I'm honoured that they would think of me."

What appealed to you about this episode 'Night Terrors'?
"I know it's a cliché but it was the quality of the writing. I know Mark Gatiss - I acted with him in [BBC Three's] Funland. This is a standalone story, but [it features] such a great relationship between a father and a son, along with all the monsters and the different stuff that Doctor Who brings to the table. But at its core, it's this heartfelt, meaningful and moving story about the worries that fathers have about their sons."

Alex and the Doctor in Doctor Who S06E09 Night Terrors
What the set-up for this episode?
"You've got Alex and Claire (Emma Cunniffe), the parents, and this little 8-year-old boy called George, who seems to be absolutely terrified of everything. Alex really is a father who's at his wits end. They get what he thinks is social services involved - they call a Doctor! And then all of a sudden, Matt Smith turns up at the door."

So what exactly is it that frightens George?
"Mostly he's scared of absolutely everything! A dressing gown on the back of the door resembles a shape, or any noise and he's absolutely petrified. The little actor Jamie was superb, a wonderful kid. But it's mainly the noises that are coming from his wardrobe."

Did the family aspect of the episode appeal to you?
"Yeah, I think that's the thing that drew me to it. I enjoy Doctor Who but it had this great [family] story at its core. The human element. I've got a 5-year-old, so I can relate to that. That was the key that got me involved. I think what Mark brings to the table is this great humour as well. There's some funny lines in it, some great one-liners."

Behind the scenes on Doctor Who S06E09 Night Terrors
Is your son Milo a fan of Doctor Who?
"He is, yeah. I always liked Doctor Who but I wasn't a crazed fan when I was a kid. I was aware of it, but it was only through watching it with Milo that I got more and more into it. Those last episodes with David Tennant when he regenerated were really fantastic pieces of television - really moving. To be part of that was an honour, really."


How was the experience of working with Matt Smith?
"He was fantastic to work with, and I really think he's wonderful in the part. David Tennant was so good and had done it for such a long time, but I think Matt's an inspired piece of casting. He makes it really relevant and brings a younger edge to it. People seem to love him, and I genuinely love him in that part. I think he's great. The energy that he has on set really comes across in his performance."

What was it like filming inside the giant's doll's house?
"Well, the actual inside of the doll's house was filmed on location. It's the same house that they used in [1993 film] The Remains of the Day. We get miniaturised and we're sucked in, and the back end of the episode is us being chased by these Peg Dolls, which were quite scary!

"The moment where they get sucked in is such a great part of the episode. The set begins to shake and close in on them, so that was fun to film."

Doctor Who S06E09 Night Terrors
Given that it's about childhood fears, how scary do you think 'Night Terrors' could be for children?
"I think it could be very, very scary! The great thing about the writing is that it taps into childhood fears. Kids have got such active imaginations and they're scared of so many different things. It really will tap into that, with the Dolls and everything else.

"But [the episode] does have this great journey. Alex has a great journey and does find this strength within - a real heroic quality. I think ultimately it's a moralistic story about fathers accepting who their kids are, regardless of what fears they have."

How frightening are the Peg Dolls compared to other Doctor Who monsters?
"I wouldn't say they're grotesque in any way. They won't scare you out of your skin. They're over-sized and they just sort of creep towards you. They don't ever run, they just keep moving towards you and in the end they'll get you! It just ties into those childhood memories you have. [Dolls] are meant to be sweet and loving and fun, but they're not - certainly not in this episode!"

Before Doctor Who, you starred in Ashes to Ashes and Outcasts - are you a sci-fi fan?
"It was never really the plan! I'm just drawn to something that has a good story. Outcasts didn't do so well, but I really admired the premise behind the show. It was trying to be something different, and it was quite bold and ambitious in that sense. But I try and mix it up - I just finished a Tony Marchant drama, so that's going back to social realism again.

"To a certain extent, there is a social realist element to this Doctor Who episode, so I try and mix it up as best as I can. You never know what you're going to be playing or where you're going to end up - that's the trepidation and the beauty of being an actor, I guess."

Alex and the Doctor in Doctor Who S06E09 Night Terrors
What's your experience been like with Doctor Who and sci-fi fans?
"I did a play at the beginning of the year and you underestimate it. The game really changed for me after Ashes to Ashes because that was such a high-concept and well-loved show.

"That was possibly the most enjoyable part I've played to date - I absolutely loved Jim Keats. And if I'm being honest, maybe Doctor Who wouldn't have been offered to me if I hadn't done Ashes To Ashes. All these things feed one another."

Your episode was moved from early in the sixth series to this second half - are you itching to see it?
"I'm really interested to see how it comes out, yeah. I'm really looking forward to seeing it, because everyone was just so wonderful to work for."

Doctor Who continues this Saturday at 7pm on BBC One and at 9/8c on BBC America.

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